Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG
History vs. Family History
The study of history and the pursuit of genealogy should go hand in hand. I’m always amazed to find a family researcher who has no interest in history. Knowledge of history is necessary when interpreting historical records and to understand our ancestors in the context of their time.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "There is properly no history; only biography." In a sense, he is correct because academic history is the study of past events, movements, and trends none of which would have existed without the human element. While academic history studies the macro view of the past with the individual important only in proportion to his prominence, family history examines the micro view in which each individual is important in his own right.
Traditionally academic historians have scoffed at the pursuit of ancestry, but where would history be without the common man? A great general’s strategy may win a battle but his plans couldn’t succeed without the common soldier who fought the battle. Great men need the support of ordinary men in order to achieve fame.
As a school child, I wondered if my ancestors served in the American Revolution and so far have located several. A few years ago I received an email from a woman who declared my ancestor Dr. Gaius Smith had saved her ancestor Angus McFee’s life. In the Connecticut State Archives, I found that state’s payment to Dr. Smith of Rupert, Vermont, for mileage, medicine and treatment of sixteen year old McFee, a Connecticut soldier marching home in the winter of 1775 from a skirmish on the Canadian border. Such incidents breathe life into our family stories.
Wars have always played a huge role in our nation’s history. My third great grandfather, a citizen of Virginia, served as wagon master in the northern army at the Battle of the Wheatfield, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Another Virginian on the Confederate side was captured and died in prison at Camp Chase, Ohio. A New Yorker serving in Abraham Lincoln’s army died the same year 1863. Two great grandchildren of these three men married 70 years later. While history records national divisions, it takes the common man to bridge the chasm and life goes on.
Studying history is more than reading textbooks and memorizing names and dates. Much well-researched historical fiction is available today to supplement non-fiction. It makes enjoyable reading and gives the reader a graphic picture of a particular period in history. Biographies of the U.S. presidents such as John Adams by David McCullough are not only interesting but great for understanding the times, political thought and concurrent events.
When I discovered my ancestor Asa Bly chosen as a Republican delegate to an 1809 New York State convention, I gained insight into his character. He probably supported Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe in their campaigns for president, favored low tariffs, states’ rights, reduced government spending, and a strict interpretation of the Constitution.
We all have stories that make our family history more interesting when interwoven with the historical events occurring during their lives. Unless you’re a Native American, your ancestors made history when they decided to come to America sometime during the past 400 years. A study of the history of migration and events that motivated people to make the move from one part of the world to another would provide insight into them. Remember if they hadn’t come, you wouldn’t be reading this newspaper today—history is a part of us whether we like it or not.
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11 February 2009
Wednesday, 18-Feb-2009 21:14:05 MST